Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Desert of Tartars

The Desert of Tartars [deserto dei Tartari] (1976) is a powerful film about loneliness, alienation, boredom, despair and death. It is directed by underrated Italian veteran, Valerio Zurlini from a 1938 Dino Buzzati novel by the same name. Zurlini had a great impact on my life with his gloomy and heartbreaking Family Diary (1962), starring Marcello Mastroianni and Jacques Perrin which I saw when I was 15 or 16. Now when I think back, I see many similarities between two pictures, especially as far as "despair and death" is concerned. In Iran, Zurlini has a cult status with his La prima notte di quiete (1972) [I even know a film critic who loved this film so much that when he became a director, give its name to his popular TV series]

The story is about a young ambitious soldier (Jacques Perrin) who assigned to the outskirts of an unspecified empire—specifically, to a massive, ancient fortress beyond which lies only the endless desert and "the Tartars," the enemy that never appears, but must be prepared for at all times. In the fort, the officers are filled with hopelessness and riddled by self-doubt and either going slowly insane or praying for reassignment. As we go along some people die and some fade away. The film never show us Tartars. There is no attack or ambush, only long shadows of the wind and horror of an invisible enemy. There is even no killing or gunshots, the only killing in the picture take place when a soldier sneaks out of the outpost and when he tries to reenter, get shot by one of his fellow soldiers. Trying to touch the outside world and discover the mysterious life outside the long walls of the outpost means death. That's the reason why Max Von Sydow's character commits suicide in an open desert. The desert is a counterpoint to the fort. It's a complete unknown, with its horrifying openness.

Despite the fact that the film has an European all-star cast including Jacques Perrin, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Max Von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, Giuliano Gemma, Laurent Terzieff, Helmut Griem, and Vittorio Gassman, it was a long forgotten masterpiece outside Europe -- because it never released in the Northern America -- till recently a newly released DVD changed its fate. (Michael Atkinson in Village Voice called it "may be the grandest and most lavish existentialist parable ever made.")

But the film always was very famous in Iran for different reasons: a) It was made with financial aid of an Iranian production company that was in business for a short period of time. They also helped Welles in making F for Fake and ill-fated Other Side of the Wind. b) Almost all exterior shots were filmed in Iran's Arg-e-Bam [Bam Fort], a 2,000-year-old Persian city and one of the world’s largest adobe building with the 180,000 square meter structure that decimated forever in the 2003 earthquake. [I'll never forget the day when the earthquake news spread in our architecture college] c) It supposed to be a vehicle for some Iranian actors, too, but things didn't work right and you can only identify Mohammad Ali Keshavarz in a very small role, as Max Von Sydow's company in desert. He was a renown stage and cinema actor in Iran and maybe the only professional actor ever appeared in a Kiarostami film, Under the olive trees (1994). d) Giuliano Gemma (who calls this film"his best role in movies") and Vittorio Gassman were very popular in the 1970s, especially Gassman was a favorite star among Iranian filmgoers, while Gemma was in demand for his Spaghetti westerns.

The primary character of the film is not Perrin or other superb actors that appear now and then. Like Polanski's Tenant, the main charachter is a building. Arg-e-Bam is a place that nourishes lonliness and solitude. Luciano Tovoli's cinematographery emphesizes this role as he had done before in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and later on The Mystery of Oberwald (1981) (he was also Antonioni's cinematographer in China, 1972). It's a must-see!
--Ehsan Khoshbakht

1 comment:

  1. یابان تاتارها به فارسی هم ترجمه شده..سروش حبیبی ترجمه اش کرده..چه کتاب فوق العاده ی بود و چه ترجمه محشری هم سروش حبیبی کرده بود..
    kave breton


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